“Ain’t that a lot to ask of us — being better than them when we get killed proving we’re just as good?”
A viciously racist thug (Richard Widmark) is convinced a young black doctor (Sidney Poitier) has intentionally killed his brother (Harry Bellaver) during a spinal tap. Poitier wants an autopsy done to prove Bellaver was suffering from a brain tumor, but Widmark and his hearing-impaired brother (Dick Paxton) refuse — so, with the help of his white mentor (Stephen McNally), Poitier approaches Bellaver’s ex-wife (Linda Darnell) for help.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Doctors and Nurses
- Joseph L. Mankiewicz Films
- Linda Darnell
- Race Relations and Racism
- Richard Widmark Films
- Sidney Poitier Films
Sidney Poitier made an auspicious screen debut in this no-holds-barred look at racial tensions and violence in mid-century America. Written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the film plays out as a sort of noir in which an innocent protagonist (Poitier) becomes trapped in the snare of a sociopath who will stop at nothing to destroy him. Widmark is such a vile character that one could attempt to dismiss his rantings as those of a crazy “mad dog” — but Mankiewicz cleverly positions him within a wider community of individuals, so we see his actions and words are merely the extreme end of the racism spectrum. In a fine, nuanced performance (perhaps her best), Darnell plays a down-trodden woman from the wrong side of the tracks who slowly experiences a change of heart as she’s exposed to decent men and women, both black and white. Poitier is excellent, and Dick Paxton as Widmark’s deaf-and-mute brother is also highly effective without speaking a word. Widmark’s central performance would have been even more impactful if he’d dialed down his gleeful venom, though he’s to be commended for taking on this distasteful role at all, and his choices are understandable.
No Way Out remains an invaluable entry in cinematic history simply for showing middle-class African-Americans attempting to live “normal” lives in the midst of nearly constant bigotry, and for exposing the abhorrent underbelly of racism (notably, the camera focuses on a couple of white women during the “race riot” scene, indicating their complicity as well). No Way Out is tough but essential viewing, and deserves wider recognition, especially as its sordid truths continue to play out today. In his engaging DVD commentary for the movie, film historian Eddie Muller provides numerous insights into the making of the film, as well as its reception — which, not surprisingly, didn’t do well in small American towns (though it was apparently well-received by critics in big cities). Modern audiences should be forewarned that racist diatribes and slurs run throughout the screenplay — a fact which has made it difficult for this film to be shown on television, and it’s not available to rent through Netflix (I had to locate a copy through my local library).
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Sidney Poitier as Dr. Brooks
- Linda Darnell as Edie
- Fine supporting performances
- A refreshingly stark look at mid-century racial tensions
- Milton Krasner’s noir-ish cinematography
Yes, as a groundbreaking classic.
- Genuine Classic
- Historically Relevant